Facts and Myths about Research on...
The Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4, 2005 0162-895X �� 2005 The Policy Studies Journal Published by Blackwell Publishing. Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ. 559 Facts and Myths about Research on Public Policy Implementation: Out-of-Fashion, Allegedly Dead, But Still Very Much Alive and Relevant Harald Saetren Despite several decades of research on public policy implementation we know surprisingly little, not only about cumulative research results, but also about several other key aspects of this research field. This article tries to amend these deficiencies by presenting the results of a comprehensive literature survey. Its main purpose is to challenge, revise, and supplement some conventional wisdom about implementation research. A second motivation is to lay the foundation for and initiate a much needed synthesis of empirical research results. The main results are: The overall volume of publications on policy implementation has not stagnated or declined dramatically since the mid 1980s as is commonly asserted. On the contrary, it has continued to grow exponentially through the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. Even more surprising is that a large number of publications are located outside the core fields. Hence, the literature is substantially larger and more multidisciplinary than most com- mentators realize. Doctoral dissertations are the most ignored, but probably the richest, largest, and best source of empirical research results. Tracing the origin as well as the location of the disciplinary and geographical cradle of implementation studies must also be readjusted significantly. The ethno- centric bias of this research field toward the Western hemisphere has been, and still is, strong and some policy sectors are given much more attention than others. Although positive in many ways, the pre- dominant multidisciplinary character of implementation research still poses some serious problems with respect to theory development. Thus, I discuss whether a resurgence of interest in policy imple- mentation among policy scholars may already be occurring. Finally, I suggest that the time is long overdue for efforts to synthesize research results in a more rigorous scientific manner than has hith- erto been done. KEY WORDS: public policy implementation, bibliometric survey, origin, size, development, discipli- nary structure, relevance, research agenda Introduction Science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths. ���Karl Popper As a new field of investigation continues to grow and expand over several decades, it becomes important to take stock of what has happened and what has been achieved. If not, the knowledge and insights gained will become increasingly
560 Policy Studies Journal, 33:4 fragmented and inaccessible (Cooper & Hedges, 1994 Hunt, 1997). Quite a few state-of-the-art reviews on public policy implementation research have been pub- lished over the years (Alexander, 1985 Barrett, 2004 Goggin et al., 1990 Hill, 1997 Hill & Hupe, 2002 Ingram, 1990 deLeon, 1999a deLeon & deLeon, 2002 Lester & Goggin, 1998 Lester et al., 1987 Linder & Peters, 1987 McLaughlin, 1987 Matland, 1995 May, 2003 O���Toole, 1986 2000 2004 Palumbo & Calista, 1990 Ryan, 1996 Sabatier, 1986 Schofield, 2001, Schofield & Sausman, 2004 Sinclair, 2001 Winter, 1990 Winter, 2003 Yin, 1982). They have all, in their time, pointed to important contributions and shortcomings in implementation research and offered valuable advice with respect to improvements. Nevertheless, surprisingly little is known about several key features of this type of research which will be explicated further below. Another related problem is that most reviewers fail to explain how they arrive at their many factual statements and interpretations. This is not uncommon among review articles in social sciences according to Jackson (1980, 444), but it precludes judgments regarding validity of their assertions and conclusions. For the few exceptions, see O���Toole (1986), Hill and Hupe (2002), and Sinclair (2001). As a result, a certain story about implementation research���its origin, discipli- nary foundation and development pattern, and so forth���has been retold so often that it has now become institutionalized in the form of conventional wisdom. The story has acquired this stature because it has never been challenged. Some key ele- ments of this conventional wisdom were created by Pressman and Wildavsky (1973), the presumed founding fathers of this type of research, at a time when it was much more difficult to keep track of research publications and their contents. These found- ing fathers made their claims in good faith. However, given the superior research tools and data resources at hand today, there is now little excuse when one uncrit- ically perpetuates that dubious account. It is time to set the record straight! What parts of the institutionalized story about implementation research are correct and which are not? The story is also incomplete in certain respects. That is, there are some important aspects of this research to which nobody has claimed knowledge. The primary aim of this article is to provide a more complete, factual account about implementation research at the outset of the new millennium. This entails recounting its origin, evolution, recent development, size, disciplinary foundation, and internal structure. The next two sections further elaborate the research questions and related research methodologies. Research Questions The most frequently debated issue of the 1990s has been the question of the state of implementation research. Is this a field of investigation where the volume of research has declined to the extent that it needs revitalization as many contemporary commentators have suggested (Barrett, 2004 deLeon, 1999, 2002 Lester & Goggin, 1998 Schofield, 2001 Schofield & Sausman, 2004 Winter, 1999, 2003)? Perhaps the opposite is the case as others had predicted at the outset of the previous decade (Goggin et al., 1990)?
Saetren: Facts and Myths about Implementation Research 561 There is no doubt that the volume of research on public policy implementation has grown substantially since the mid-1970s, but exactly how large is it at the begin- ning of the new millennium? Can this question be answered at all, or even approx- imately? If so, what is the answer? Political science scholars and their colleagues in the subfields of public admin- istration and public policy share the sacred notion that policy implementation research is primarily their domain. Does this conviction withstand closer examina- tion? If not, what are the other academic disciplines that make important contribu- tions to implementation research? The degree of concentration or fragmentation regarding the structure of scholarly communication is essential to efforts at accumulation of knowledge in any field of investigation (Borgman, 1990). The greater the number of articles published in a few core journals the more favorable the condition should be for synthesizing that research literature and vice versa. How does implementation research fare in this vital respect? It is customarily asserted that virtually no research under the explicit label of implementation (or implementing) was carried out before the publication of Press- man and Wildavsky���s seminal book titled Implementation in 1973. Is this really true? In the same vein it might be reasonably assumed that implementation research orig- inated on the West Coast in the San Francisco Bay Area at the University of California Berkeley campus, where Wildavsky was an influential teacher and researcher during the 1960s and 1970s. Do the facts corroborate this? What policy issues do implementation scholars study and how do they match the supposedly salient ones in our societies? This question also has a geographical dimension. There is no doubt that implementation research from the beginning was predominantly a North American enterprise. The question here is to what extent the focus has shifted to other regions of the world and their policy challenges as the research field matured? Another key issue is the relevance of implementation research, and why it became unfashionable. Finally, one wonders if some policy scholars��� recent calls for the revival of implementation research are having any effect. If so, what direction should reenergized research efforts take? These, then, are the main questions this article purports to answer. Data and Methodology As most reviewers of implementation research have had little to say about their data sources and methodologies, I find it necessary to rectify this neglect. This study has relied on many data sources and research methods. Nonetheless, digitalized, scientific literature databases presently available at most universities as well as a related search instrument called bibliometrics,1 proved to be the most important by far. Three databases in particular, the Expanded Social Science Citation Index, World Catalogue, and the Digital Dissertations (Dissertation Abstracts), were utilized because they are interdisciplinary and together they cover all major types of publications. They contain vast amounts of information, but of variable quality.2 Still, there are